Art Vs Commerce: Dawn of the Blockbuster (1970s)


The Age of the Blockbuster was in full gear come 1977. Two films came close to equalling Jaws at the box office, doubling the take of Rocky, and yet both were blown away by a record-smashing hit nobody saw coming. Meanwhile the Oscar champ only managed to sneak into the very bottom of the top ten. Sometimes Hollywood’s biggest hit was also the award favourite for the year. But that was a long time ago, and this year’s two films are far, far away from each other.

Hey remember how glad I was not to have to dig into Roman Polanski as a person to discuss him as a filmmaker? Man that was great. Anyhoo…

And The Oscar Goes To…

So. Woody Allen.

Annie Hall, possibly the movie that kicked Allen up from “quirky comedian” to “the guy who still gets A-list casts in every movie he writes despite accusations against his character and not having had a hit in decades.” Seriously, he’s right after Terrence Malick when it comes to getting big stars to be in a movie they must know very few people will see.

Annie Hall is a surreal comedy giving us a non-sequential look at the relationship of comedian Alvy Singer and Annie Hall, while Alvy dissects it (and the rest of his life) to figure out how it went wrong. It’s filled with Allen’s signature neurotic comedy, with gags and one-liners coming fast and furious. So if you don’t like Allen’s style, that’s gonna be a problem, ’cause it’s relentless. Like how I think The Grand Budapest Hotel is fantastic, but admit if you don’t like Wes Anderson, you’re gonna have a bad time. But if Woody’s comedy aesthetic isn’t a deal breaker, well, let’s push on.

There are a bunch of clever surreal touches: characters wandering through their own flashbacks, commenting on their past selves; fourth-wall breaks including Alvy fantasizing about shutting up a blowhard in a ticket line by pulling Marshall McLuhan into frame to contradict him; Alvy discussing his issues with random strangers and them responding like they’ve been talking to him the whole time; Alvy and Annie awkwardly discussing her art on their first date while subtitles show us what they’re actually thinking. And they’re all basically clever and work but they put my finger on the answer to “Is Annie Hall necessary enough that we must reconcile Woody Allen’s actions and allegations?”

And my answer is “no,” because we now live in a world where 500 Days of Summer exists.

500 Days of Summer is the same basic story: a non-sequential dissection of a failed relationship that come on is absolutely auto-bio, who are you kidding, screenwriter. But it has better, more clever direction, the metaphoric flourishes are better, and it stars the delightful Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who is a better and funnier actor than Woody Allen and (knocks wood, crosses fingers, sacrifices goat* to Odin) does not have a bunch of sexual abuse allegations and has never had to justify a relationship by saying “I was not legally her adoptive father, I was just dating her adoptive mother.”

*I didn’t have a goat, I sacrificed a scallion instead, hopefully Odin’s cool with that**

**Nobody tell Odin that I don’t care for scallions so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice

So if you want to separate art from artist (yes Woody has denied Mia and Ronan Farrow’s accusations, but he would regardless, I’m not here to debate that), Annie Hall is an entertaining enough watch. If you believe the Farrows, good news, you can watch 500 Days of Summer instead and have a better time.

I’ll give Annie Hall this, though: Diane Keaton really holds her own in the title role, and that’s not easy to do given how precision-engineered the movie is to ensure that Alvy is the central figure of every single scene.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: They put it 18th, right between Gone With the Wind and All Quiet on the Western Front. I dunno, feels high. Although “Right above Gone With the Wind” is where I’d rank it at this point…

What’s New, Hollywood? This was a leap forward where Woody Allen was concerned, and it feels safe to say there hadn’t been many romantic comedies like this one before now. Certainly not many that made oral sex jokes.

Anyhoo I think we all know what’s next. The Oscars said “Quirky, weird romance” and audiences said “No, laser swords.”

The Box Office Champ

(Another milestone: the first movie on the list I already owned on Blu-ray.)

A two-year passion project for George Lucas, from founding Industrial Light and Magic, the company that would invent the special effects needed, in 1975. A hit nobody saw coming, that annihilated the box office records (inflation, Gone With the Wind, you know the words, sing along!) and became a phenomenon. The first Star Wars was nominated for ten Oscars (including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Alec Guinness, who hated it) and won six, plus a special achievement Oscar for Ben Burtt for his work creating the voices of the aliens, creatures, and droids.

We’re going to be talking about Star Wars as a franchise pretty often from here, because seven out of eleven movies made the list, but for now, here’s some quick points as to why the original holds the heck up, and why no disappointing sequels or toxic fanbase can turn me against it.

  • That opening text crawl plunges you into this world so perfectly, in a way few expository text sequences do, even other Star Wars movies. It helps that we read “The Empire” and “The Rebellion” and we know exactly what we’re dealing with and where we stand. By contrast, it’s been over a year since the sequel trilogy ended and The Mandalorian is just starting to explain what the First Order’s deal is or why they’re called that.
  • The score by John Williams is masterful, helping forge some truly iconic moments. And the Cantina Theme is and always shall be an absolute JAM.
  • The effects, the puppetry, the prosthetics, they all hold up excellently. The only effects that don’t hold up are all the extra nonsense Lucas added for the special editions in the 90s (I can’t watch the original cuts, I don’t have a VCR).
  • The characters are excellently realized archetypes. They all lift right out of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, but it only takes one, maybe two scenes for us to get their whole deal, and be on board with them.
  • And they managed that with a cast of mostly unknowns, save for Guinness and Hammer Horror mainstay Peter Cushing. I occasionally wondered, if Clark Gable had taken better care of himself, could he have been Obi-Wan? What would that look like? Then Alec Guinness said “Hello there” and I stopped wondering.
  • Sure Darth Vader is an instantly iconic villain, between the helmet and the mechanical breathing and James Earl Jones’ voice, but never forget Grand Moff Tarkin, the man who actually blew up Alderaan. Peter Cushing came to play. He’s so good he got away with never learning how to pronounce “Alderaan.” Swear to God he’s saying “Alderland.”
  • The rescue of Leia is an all-timer action sequence, and Han Solo’s “We’re fine, we’re all fine here now, thank you… how are you?” remains hilarious.

Man I love Star Wars, I love it so much. But where this blog series is concerned… it couldn’t be much farther away from Annie Hall. A surreal comedy about a simple human relationship, and an epic about space wizards designed for children, that’s quite the gulf in tone and content between the Oscars and the general audience. And things have really changed since audiences were all about Love Story.

Also worth noting: George Lucas agreed to direct this movie for free in exchange for the merchandise and sequel rights. He gave up $500,000 to own the IP and all of the toy sales. That’s… that’s a good trade. One I’m sure was only possible because Doctor Doolittle’s merch lost 20th Century Fox so much cash they didn’t think there was still money in merchandise. Hoo boy was someone kicking themselves over that.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: A 92% from critics and 96% from audiences, whatever else the fandom is doing now the first one’s still a favourite.

What’s New, Hollywood? The biggest name in science fiction up until this point was Planet of the Apes. Star Trek had its devoted fanbase but was still fighting for new life. All of that changed. Soon everyone wanted a piece of this action, but no one came close (it took Battlestar Galactica over two decades to get good), so we’re not gonna be talking many Star Wars imitators.

Other Events in Film

  • This Year in Bond: Roger Moore has his first go-round with metal-toothed henchman Jaws (Bond was always one to chase a trend) in The Spy Who Loved Me. One year earlier, it’d have been one of the biggest hits; in 1977, it was eighth.
  • This Year in Martin Scorsese Films: Marty and Bobby De Niro team up with Liza Minelli for the musical New York, New York. Yeah, I’m surprised too.
  • George Lucas’ pal Steven Spielberg still managed to turn in a huge hit with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, number three at the year’s box office. Its star, Richard Dreyfuss, beats out Woody Allen for the acting trophies in The Goodbye Girl.
  • Right above Close Encounters, but still nearly $100 million 70s dollars behind Star Wars? One Burt Reynolds in the cross-country chase movie Smokey and the Bandit.
  • Welcome Back Kotter’s John Travolta makes a splash in the very late-70s Saturday Night Fever.
  • Airport ’77 gets another big, eclectic cast, including James Stewart, Christopher Lee, Jack Lemmon, and Olivia de Havilland, but it’s pretty clear the bloom is off the rose where disaster movies are concerned.
  • Robert Shaw does another movie based on a novel by the Jaws author, The Deep. It does… okay.
  • Disney revives interest in animation with The Rescuers.
  • George Burns goes divine for Oh God, a nice antidote to the 50s bible epics.
  • A Bridge Too Far unites an all-star cast for a WWII movie… about an allied loss, Operation: Market Garden. It manages 6th at the box office, but is ignored by the awards. Guess they found it a little much, or in other words… no, that joke’s too obvious, it’s just saying the title again, that’s not clever…
  • The writing team of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker (along with director John Landis) presented the cinematic sketch comedy The Kentucky Fried Movie. I think it’s still funny? Several sketches mock genres that are less of a thing now, like disasters, Blaxploitation, and kung fu. Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker would be comedy icons in the 80s, then… stuff happened, they’re not now.
  • Pete’s Dragon is the final roadshow release. Guess it didn’t work. Via con Dios, roadshows.

Next Page: It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s… a three hour Vietnam movie!

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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